“Buckle up, darlings,” warns Billy Bloom, the adolescent protagonist of “Freak Show,” with his most salacious Bette Davis sneer. “I’m gonna take you on a little ride I call my life.” For a second, you sense some affectionate irony in Trudie Styler’s well-intentioned but woolly directorial debut: After all, many’s the privileged suburban teenager who has declared their life wilder and wackier than anyone else’s.
It doesn’t take long to realize, however, that “Freak Show” takes Billy (gamely played by British rising star Alex Lawther) entirely at his word. An out-and-proud, drag-loving high-schooler who delights in subverting masculine norms — and wears his resulting social isolation as a badge of honor — he’s certainly a beautiful misfit. Yet Styler’s surface-level adaptation of James St. James’ queer bildungsroman shows us more of Billy’s eye-popping wardrobe than his soul, as his superficially defined exceptionalism tilts ever less endearingly into narcissism; we leave this carnival-colored rallying cry to “stay true to yourself” unsure of who our hero truly is. A limited January release awaits “Freak Show” following a lengthy 2017 festival tour, but the film will presumably find its most receptive young audience online.
Styler’s peppy but thin foray into feature direction is especially disappointing following her strong track record as a producer of more singular, stylistically confident indies, from Dito Montiel’s “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints,” Duncan Jones’s “Moon” to Maggie Betts’s recent “Novitiate” — a polar-opposite portrait of teenage rebellion in which the ascetic life amounted to its own form of freak flag-flying. Crafted with varnished competence but little personality, “Freak Show” is instead the kind of lightweight cinematic foray one might expect from a figure embedded in A-list celebrity: As Styler calls in glitzy cameo-sized favors from the likes of Bette Midler, John McEnroe and Laverne Cox, her film offers little more than a strained “Make America Great Again” gag in the way of sociopolitical texture.
In sketching out Billy’s fraught but fabulous existence, Styler, together with screenwriters Beth Rigazio and Patrick J. Clifton, wavers in her allegiance to reality or wish-fulfilment: The film’s depictions of classroom bullying don’t sit in quite the same world as a dreamy, sensitive star quarterback named Flip (Ian Nelson, as winning as can be in such a patently phony role) who can spot a real Jackson Pollock at a hundred paces. In either dimension, Billy’s immense economic privilege goes unchecked. Introductory scenes illustrate the formative influence of his hedonistic mother Mauvine (an auto-vamping Midler), described as “a living testament to grace, glamour and Gucci,” though his vast, expensive collection of drag outfits — ranging in inspiration from Adam Ant to the Little Mermaid — might just put her closet to shame.
Yet this gilded childhood — lit in suitably luxe fashion by cinematographer Dante Spinotti — soon hits a gray wall. For clunkily withheld reasons, Mauvine exits the scene, sending Billy from Connecticut to live with his moneyed but distinctly fun-free father William (Larry Pine) on a vast estate in a pocket of Southern suburbia that may as well be called Homophobiville. “Freak Show” doesn’t shy from blanket regional stereotyping, but then neither does its hero: Billy enters the local high school with such a superiority complex that he never bothers to learn the name of the one open-minded wallflower (AnnaSophia Robb) who initially befriends him. She is nonetheless entranced by his fluorescent charisma, as, in due course, is Flip, an Oscar Wilde-quoting jock-with-a-heart who acts as Billy’s no-homo admirer and protector. (We’re flirting with outright fantasy here.)
Chief among those unconverted to Billy’s brash charms is Lynette (Abigail Breslin), a self-righteous, Bible-thumping Mean-Girl-in-Chief and imminent homecoming queen who spouts Trump-style rhetoric by the lipglossed mouthful. She’s easy to loathe, but “Freak Show” practically casts as a villain anyone not dazzled by Billy’s inner light — a position that grows harder to cheer for as his own character remains so stubbornly, one-dimensionally self-oriented. “I gotta be me,” Billy insists, and rightly so — but when that state of being appears to preclude any interest in, or empathy with, even his most supportive peers, the message rings a little hollow.
It’s exciting to see Lawther, so affecting as the young Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game” and as a yearning gay teen in “Departure,” crafting such a multifaceted gallery of queer portraiture early in his career, but his brighest efforts can’t make Billy more character than concept. “Freak Show,” meanwhile, doesn’t exhibit an understanding of queer identity that goes much deeper than the sheer sequined fabulosity of Billy’s image. In an impassioned, inspirational school address — the kind to which you know the film is building from its first frame — he finally hints at broader understanding: “You’re all freaks too — isn’t that what being a teenager is all about?” It’s a tardy glimmer of solidarity in what’s otherwise aggressively, even oppressively, a glitter-strewn one-man show.